By Saloni Sharma:
End of Story?: By Arjun Shekhar
Pub. By Hachette India, 2013
pp 325, Rs.350.
Electronic media today wields undeniable power over our collective conscience. It shapes our perceptions, gives voice to our grievances and often functions as a tool for real or imagined social change. In this climate of incessant media interventions in social as well as cultural spaces, Arjun Shekhar’s second book, End of Story? strikes an interesting note. Set in an alternate present, where the Supreme Court has banned electronic advertising, thereby resulting in the shutting down of television channels, the book attempts to deal with complex questions on the nature of stories, narratives, truth, or rather, various versions of truth.
Shekhar’s protagonist, Shukrat Ali, is an ex-employee at a current affairs channel, Khulasa. To anyone familiar with the sensationalism that drives the tabloid category of news channels, the “news items” at Khulasa will sound morbidly familiar. Hauntings, witches, ghosts and gossip- all such TRP generators are fair fodder for the channel. Ali’s narrative works as a documentation of events that led to the death of his boss and mentor, Satya Saachi Sengupta. It unfolds in the racy manner of a thriller, generously peppered with the twists and turns of a whodunit. Inextricably linked with Sengupta’s death is the mystery surrounding the emergence of a new form of advertisement- of using subliminal messages to influence the viewer, not for selling products but to bring about significant behavioural changes. These covert ads, termed propagandas, function as a veritable attack on public consciousness and have far-reaching consequences, some of which play out in the theatre of world politics. The link Shekhar creates between the propagandas and a crucial event in contemporary history makes for fascinating reading.
A significant aspect of the text is its exploration of the collusion between the media and corporate houses. The current debate about the extent of “sponsorship” of television channels by corporate houses or political parties finds a sonorous echo in the novel. The book takes a good, hard look at how the agenda and the content of news are determined by market forces and not by any real concerns for the pursuit of the truth. Whether this is cynicism on Shekhar’s part or a mirroring of real life is up to the reader to decide.
Another interesting facet of the book is its connect with issues in the here and now. In taking its protagonists from Delhi to the heart of rural Maharashtra, the book confronts the tragedy of farmer suicides. In an insightful aside, the author looks at the causes as well as consequences of farmer suicide, injecting the entire episode with a strong dose of black humour. The book also glances fleetingly at the rituals and life-choices of the Gond tribe, their exuberance for life, connectedness to natural forces and startling practicality. Shukrat’s brief involvement with the Gonds forms a sort of counterpoint to the dystopic urban space the protagonists occupy.
The author seems to have made a concerted effort to conjure up a crew of characters who are realistic and sometimes, representative of a type. His “hero”, Shukrat, is decidedly un-heroic, obviously flawed and, not to create too much of a spoiler, a bit of an unreliable narrator. His daughter, Quyamat, appropriately called Q, for all the questions that gush out of her incessantly, is a lovingly crafted ten year old, curious and surprisingly wise. Shekhar uses distinct registers for many of the characters, making them identifiable to his readers- whether as the quintessential Delhi businessman- Tauji, the chairman of Khulasa, or the urbane, erudite Bengali- Satya Saachi Sengupta or even Wani, the street-smart yet philosophical driver Shukrat’s crew travels with in Maharashtra.
One of the first things about the book that catches the reader’s attention is its use of that unusual question mark in the title. It functions as more than punctuation. It represents an open-endedness, something that fits within the writer’s vision of the changing meanings of stories as they evolve. To concede more than novelty value to the question mark, it also presages the way the structure of the novel works. The text is broken up into chapters, each of which is phrased in the form of a question. The narrative then becomes an interrogation, of the protagonist by an imagined counsel, as well as an interrogation of the motives and actions of the cast of characters.
What sets End of Story? apart from other recent fictional offerings is its desire to delve into the philosophical nature of story-telling and language. It is a brave attempt at uncovering the politics of telling stories, of making up the truth, whether in the form of legends, folk tales, novels or advertisement.